To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday I wrote this little piece on how the Bard can save Hollywood. You can find more Shakespeare birthday posts at Happy Birthday Shakespeare.
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I’m not the first person to suggest that if he lived today William Shakespeare would be one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Shakespeare acted, he wrote scripts, and the company he co-founded owned two theaters and had a royal patent – in other words, he was a studio head/producer. He was also adept at politics. His company went from being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men as the Tutor dynasty ended and the Stewart dynasty began. Shakespeare was The Man. And by that I mean, he was at the center of both the cultural and political establishment of his day.
Shakespeare didn’t just do these things. He did them very well. His dialogue is beautifully crafted. His characters are a mess of emotions and contradictions. I vacillate from feeling sorry for Hamlet to wanting to tell him to “man up” and kill Claudius already. His plays are filled with – I can’t help but use the phrase – cinematic action. It’s really not surprising that I like Shakespeare and action movies.
Moreover, he wasn’t above pandering to the crowd with crude and sophomoric humor, or portraying Queen Elizabeth’s father and grandfather in a complementary light. He played to his audience and endeavored to bring them along with him. He did not expect his audience to come to him high atop the mountain of pure art – wherever that is.
This raises the question, does the fact that Richard III ends with Henry Tutor saving the day and bringing peace and prosperity to England reduce the art of the play? Let me put it another way. If Shakespeare was that Hollywood heavy weight I described above, would his plays be popcorn movies, released as potential summer blockbusters? Or would they be given a limited art house released? This is a trick question, of course, because Shakespeare was both popular and high brow. Today we divide movies into Hollywood/mainstream/commercial on the one hand and art on the other.
But why do we divide movies in this way? This is actually a big question that deserves its own post. For the moment, let me merely say this division is a shame because it is possible for a movie to be both. One of the best recent examples is Gladiator which was an art movie disguised as an action movie. Or an action movie disguised as art movie depending on your perspective.
In the past few years there has been a lot of hand wringing in the film industry about declining and/or stagnant movie ticket sales. But today, on his birthday, William Shakespeare can provide the solution. All filmmakers have to do is this: Go watch some of Shakespeare’s plays, learn from them, and start making action movies that are also art movies, or art movies that are also action movies. Then the multi-plexes would be as full today as the Globe was in its day.